Tesla has been called everything from a genius to a quack. The fact remains that the alternating current electrical system now used worldwide was his conception, and among other inventions he perfected a remote controlled boat in 1897&emdash;only a few years after the discovery of radio waves. This device was publicly demonstrated at Madison Square Garden the next year to capacity crowds.
In 1896, Tesla had been in the United States for 11 years after emigrating from his native Croatia. After a disastrous fire in his former laboratory, he moved to more amenable quarters at 46 Houston St. in Manhattan. For the past few years, he had pondered the sigificance of waves and resonance, thinking that along with the AC system, there were other untapped sources of power waiting to be exploited. The oscillators he designed and built were originally designed to provide a stable source for the frequencies of alternating current&emdash;accurate enough to “set your watch by.”
He constructed a simple device consisting of a piston suspended in a cylinder, which bypassed the necessity of a camshaft driven by a rotating power source, such as a gasoline or steam engine. In this way, he hoped to overcome loss of power through friction produced by the old system. This small device also enabled Tesla to try out his experiments in resonance. Every substance has a resonant frequency which is demonstrated by the principle of sympathetic vibration&endash;the most obvious example is the wine glass shattered by an opera singer (or a tape recording for you couch potatoes.) If this frequency is matched and amplified, any material may be literally shaken to pieces.
A vibrating assembly with an adjustable frequency was finally perfected, and by 1897, Tesla was causing trouble with it in and near the neighborhood around his loft laboratory. Reporter A.L. Besnson wrote about this device in late 1911 or early 1912 for the Hearst tabloid The World Today. After fastening the resonator (“no larger than an alarm clock”) to a steel bar (or “link”) two feet long and two inches thick:
He set the vibrator in “tune” with the link. For a long time nothing happened-&endash;vibrations of machine and link did not seem to coincide, but at last they did and the great steel began to tremble, increased its trembling until it dialated and contracted like a beating heart&endash;and finally broke. Sledge hammers could not have done it; crowbars could not have done it, but a fusillade of taps, no one of which would have harmed a baby, did it. Tesla was pleased.
But not pleased enough it seems:
He put his little vibrator in his coat-pocket and went out to hunt a half-erected steel building. Down in the Wall Street district, he found one&endash;ten stories of steel framework without a brick or a stone laid around it. He clamped the vibrator to one of the beams, and fussed with the adjustment until he got it.
Tesla said finally the structure began to creak and weave and the steel-workers came to the ground panic-stricken, believing that there had been an earthquake. Police were called out. Tesla put the vibrator in his pocket and went away. Ten minutes more and he could have laid the building in the street. And, with the same vibrator he could have dropped the Brooklyn Bridge into the East River in less than an hour.
Tesla claimed the device, properly modified, could be used to map underground deposits of oil. A vibration sent through the earth returns an “echo signature” using the same principle as sonar. This idea was actually adapted for use by the petroleum industry, and is used today in a modified form with devices used to locate objects at archaelogical digs.
Even before he had mentioned the invention to anyone he was already scaring the local populace around his loft laboratory. Although this story may be apocryphal, it has been cited in more than one biography: Tesla happened to attach the device to an exposed steel girder in his brownstone, thinking the foundations were built on strudy granite. As he disovered later, the subtrata in the area consisted of sand&endash;an excellent conductor and propogator of ground vibrations.
After setting the little machine up, he proceeded to putter about the lab on other projects that needed attention. Meanwhile, for blocks around, chaos reigned as objects fell off shelves, furniture moved across floors, windows shattered, and pipes broke. The pandemonium didn’t go unnoticed in the local precinct house where prisoners panicked and police officers fought to keep coffee and donuts from flying off desks. Used as they were to the frequent calls about diabolical noises and flashes from Mr. Tesla’s block, they hightailed it over. Racing up the stairs and into the lab, they found the inventor smashing the vibrator to bits with a sledgehammer. Turning to them with accustomed old-world aplomb, he apoligized calmly: ” Gentlemen, I am sorry. You are just a trifle too late to witness my experiment. I found it necessary to stop it suddenly and unexpectedly in an unusual way. However, If you will come around this evening, I will have another oscillator attached to a platform and each of you can stand on it. You will I am sure find it a most interesting and pleasurable experience. Now, you must leave, for I have many things to do. Good day.” (Actually, another story is related of Tesla’s good friend Mark Twain, a regular visitor to the laboratory, standing on the vibrating platform to his great surprise and pleasure, extoling its theraputic effects while repeatedly ignoring the inventor’s warnings to get down. Before long, he was made aware of its laxative effects and ran stiffly to the water closet.)
One source has it that the device “bonded to the metal on an atomic level” and Tesla was unable to get at the controls, but it seems more likely that the wild movements of the girder, combined with the panic that he might bring the neigborhood down, moved Tesla to this unsubtle action. He later mused to reporters that the very earth could be split in two given the right conditions. The detonation of a ton of dynamite at intervals of one hour and forty-nine minutes would step up the natural standing wave that would be produced until the earth’s crust could no longer contain the interior. He called his new science “tele-geodynamics.” Newspaper artists of the time went nuts with all manner of fanciful illustrations of this theory. Tesla’s fertile imagination posited a series of oscillators attached to the earth at strategic points that would be used to transmit vibrations to be picked up at any point on the globe and turned back in to usable power. Since no practical application of this idea could be found at the time that would make money for big investors or other philanthropic souls, (one can’t effectively meter and charge for power derived in this way) the oscillators fell into disuse.
In the 1930s, Tesla revived the idea of tele-geodynamics to create small, relatively harmless temblors to relieve stress, rather than having to wait in fear for nature to take it’s course.